FRANCISCO MARADIAGA / FRANCES ROBLES
October 02, 2008
Banned from running for mayor of Caracas, Leopoldo López says elections nevertheless are the right way to oppose Hugo Chávez
''All the rights for all the people'' is a phrase Leopoldo López is willing to die for.
It is also a concept some people are willing to kill him for.
There have been three assassination attempts on the 37-year-old mayor of Chacao, an upscale Caracas municipality. Eleven bullets took the life of his close friend and body guard.
López longs to change his country for the better, but he will have to do it from the outside the ballot box: last month, he was banned by the government from seeking office after his term expires. The move kept López from running for mayor of Greater Caracas, a seat he said he was poised to win.
''We had 65 percent support; there was no doubt we were going to win,'' López said Thursday at the 12th annual Americas Conference held in Miami. ``We were going to break the myth in place for the past 10 years that only those in power have the heart of the people.''
Despite being knocked off the ballot, briefly kidnapped once and almost killed three times, López said elections are the only path for Venezuela's opposition, and for other Latin Americans growing weary of their leaders.
López has come to symbolize what critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez say is the government's effort to use its institutional powers to hold on to control. The young, newly-married Harvard-educated López became a vocal crusader and white knight in the cause to oust Chávez.
Mayor of his town for eight years, he will have to step down when his term is up in 2009. His friend's killers have never been caught.
Last month, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the government decision to keep López and more than 250 other candidates from running for office because of criminal charges against them. In López's case, the charges dated as far back as 1998.
Critics say the measure was an orchestrated move to keep Chávez' opponents at bay. López filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
López was accused of misappropriation of funds, because while an employee of the state oil company PDVSA, the political party he helped run received a grant from the oil company. At the time, López's mother was in charge of distributing the funds.
A fact sheet published by the Venezuelan embassy in Washington claimed that the vast majority of the candidates affected by the government's move were Chávez supporters. The sheet also said López had ample opportunity to present exculpatory evidence.
''It was quite legal and based on a law that was revised in 2001 which his political party backed,'' said Alex Main, an international relations adviser for the Venezuelan government. ``It did not just affect the opposition.''
Main said the opposition activists long abstained from participating in elections -- and then turned around and complained about the results.
''Clearly they are reconsidering taking part in the electoral process, and that's good,'' he said. ``They are playing the democratic game. They are no longer staging coups -- or at least not as many of them are trying to stage coups.''
He said opposition activists abstained from several elections in Venezuela, and were unhappy with the outcome. But last year voters defeated a constitutional referendum that would have locked in Chávez's power -- a sign that the opposition must stick to elections and democracy, he said. Even if they got knocked off the ballot.
The referendum loss was Chávez's first in a decade.
''Our message is not one of desperation, it's a message of struggle for a better future for Venezuela,'' López said. ``I wanted to be the mayor of the city of Caracas, and the powerful and those that manage the power put a stop to it. But they cannot put a stop to dreams.''